By Michael Howell
County Commissioner J.R. Iman and Jack May, Maintenance Chief for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT), told members of the Stevensville Civic Club and the Main Street Association last week that the state now plans to remove the landscaping in the medians along Highway 93 and cover the medians in concrete. May said that MDOT was going to replace the landscaping in the medians with stamped concrete starting in Lolo and working southward.
“What spawned this,” said May, “is that they are a mess and are not being taken care of. It’s a black eye to MDOT, even though it’s not our responsibility.”
The story of the medians installed as part of the highway improvements at each community along the way is a little different. When the highway improvements were being designed, the County expressed an unwillingness to take on the responsibility for maintenance of the amenities requested by the public, but was willing, given deadlines for getting the project started, to sign on to the responsibility if each community would “promise” to step up and do the maintenance on a volunteer basis and take care of the amenities themselves.
MDOT agreed to install the traffic slowing medians with landscaping and offered to provide traffic control for volunteers doing the landscaping maintenance.
But as time passed in the long period of construction, and for various reasons along the route, the community commitment failed to be realized. Part of the problem in Stevensville, for instance, was that MDOT could only provide traffic control from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. This did not work for most volunteers, who counted on doing their service after work or on weekends. There were problems with the water system. Weeds proliferated and bushes and trees died.
Ravalli County Weed District Coordinator Kellianne Morris said that the Weed District did some work on the Stevensville medians, but that there were simply no funds in the district budget for the work needed.
“We need to reduce the work in the medians as much as possible. Cementing them would reduce the work by 99%,” she said.
According to Commissioner Iman, the problem with the proposed arrangement for traffic control was that, if the county did the work, county employees would have been working under the supervision of volunteers. He said that is not possible.
With the County still unwilling to simply take on the responsibility and cost of the maintenance, the medians languished.
Iman says the bottom line now is that the county is not willing to take on the liability of having volunteers out in the middle of the highway. It is just too much of a safety hazard even with traffic control. Although Iman, himself, has kept the water system working along the highway and to the medians, he believes the commission as a whole still lacks the will to take on the entire maintenance program and associated expenses.
Iman also stated that road salt was a big factor in the failure of landscape in the medians. He said that he has been doing some research for trees that might be salt tolerant, but isn’t having much luck.
May said that the state plows and salts away from the center of the road. He said landscaping survives elsewhere where salt is used on the roads and even here the landscaping has survived in a few medians where the road is salted just as much as in the other places.
The bottom line at this point, however, is that the state and the county are in agreement to remove the landscaping and cover the medians in concrete, except perhaps at the town of Victor, which has proven to be an exception to the string of failures elsewhere along the highway.
Iman said that the county would be working with MDOT to assure that when the water system is disconnected to the medians that it remains serviceable on the roadside for roadside amenities. He said the county was looking for landowners along the highway to sign caretaking agreements with the county for the landscaping along their property, as Trader Brothers has done north of Florence.